PALM HARBOR, FLA. — It was after midnight when the last photo slid into the last envelope, and Chad and Jamie Cordero were done, finally, with their Christmas cards. The pictures were perfect: Jamie holding 18-month-old Riley, and Chad, the erstwhile closer of the Washington Nationals, standing and beaming. His right arm — the one the Nationals worked so hard, the one that eventually wore out — tight around his baby daughter Tehya, whose head, wrapped with a bow, reflected the meaning of her name: precious.
With the photos ready to send, the Corderos flipped off the TV in their Huntington Beach, Calif., home. Riley and Tehya were sleeping at Chad’s parents’ house some 40 miles away in Chino, his home town. Jamie was fresh off surgery to fix an old gymnastics injury. The crutches made it difficult to get around. A night off to prep for the holidays. Normal parenting stuff.
Nothing since that night — since the phone rang and they raced to the car and drove like hell, only to discover their baby girl Tehya had died — has been normal. They now know statistics about SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, and have met parents like themselves, with losses new and old, nearly all of them still wondering, “Why us?”
They have endured the unspeakable pain of burying their daughter, of visiting her grave every day — family picnics sometimes, each parent alone with Tehya at others. And eventually, they made the bold decision to head east — east, for baseball — trying to hold together their life as Cordero tries, simultaneously, to hold together his career.
“I want to do it for her,” Chad Cordero said.
As he sat in the dining room at his family’s rented apartment not far from his new spring training home — in Dunedin, home to the Toronto Blue Jays — those words felt appropriate, not at all forced. The Corderos must figure out how to move on from all-encompassing grief while still honoring their daughter. Making it back to the big leagues, where Cordero hasn’t held a stable job since early 2008, would be one way, one small way, to accomplish that.
“It’s therapy for him,” said Edward Cordero, Chad’s father.
But this is not as simple as sports serving as savior. The image of Cordero from his Washington days — just 23, neither a husband nor a father — is so far removed now. In the District, he will always be associated with the summer of 2005, with baseball’s return, when he pulled on his flat-brimmed cap and fearlessly saved almost any game the Nationals asked, 47 by year’s end, more than anyone in baseball.
“Just happy go-lucky,” said his pitching coach back then, Randy St. Claire. “. . . Nothing ever seemed to shake him.”
He is shaken now. There are times during spring training when he heads to a bathroom stall at the Blue Jays’ complex, closing the door to cry. There will be times ahead — on a plane, on a bus — when he won’t be able to hold back.
“I’m gonna lose it,” he said. “I know it’s gonna happen.”
But there are things the Corderos want people to know: how Tehya smiled from her first days, how her dark hair covered her head, how Riley kissed her. They can smile at that. But just because the full-on, physically crippling breakdowns happen less frequently now — no longer round the clock, maybe not even every day — this remains impossibly difficult.
“It was, like, so hard — for weeks,” Jamie Cordero said, haltingly. “Like you didn’t want to go to sleep, because you just felt that much further away from her, like it really happened. But looking back right now, I’m just glad those first few weeks are over, because it’s just like hell.”
Chad Cordero, baseball pitcher, and Jamie Moody, gymnast, got together after their college days at Cal State Fullerton. They married in November 2008, just months after Chad’s shoulder gave way, after he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum, after the Nationals let him go.
That was supposed to be the difficult part of life, working back from the major uncertainty that goes with major shoulder surgery. Wedged into all those travails — solitary rehab, time back in the minors, a brief major league appearance with Seattle, a return to the minors with the New York Mets — are little, innocuous events that mean so much now. Last September, despite his 1.69 ERA in 17 appearances in Class AAA, the Mets didn’t call up Cordero. Instead, he drove home for Tehya’s birth.
“Looking back, if I had missed those three weeks,” Cordero said, “it would have been so much harder with what happened.”
What happened? Inevitably, the question hangs everywhere around the Corderos now, even as people – experts on SIDS, parents they meet in a support group, the coroner’s office – tell them there is no blame.
“My wife, she blames herself,” Edward Cordero said. “Jamie, as the mom, she blames herself. Everybody blames themselves.”
When Chad and Jamie dropped the girls off Dec. 3 in Chino, at the home in which Chad and his three siblings grew up. Edward Cordero played with Tehya in a swing, snapping photos that he still carries on his phone. He eventually went to the living room to watch TV. Riley fell asleep there. Edward’s wife Patti, Chad’s mom, took care of Tehya, coaxing her to sleep in a bedroom. Even after Patti and Edward retired themselves, they checked Tehya regularly. When Edward got up just after midnight, Patti checked on Tehya. Around 12:45 a.m., she went in again. Edward heard her scream.
There is hardly any sorting out the next minutes, hours, days. A call to 911, Edward’s futile attempts at CPR, the arrival of paramedics, the gathering of relatives.
There were no answers, not then and not now, and maybe not ever. Part of the definition of SIDS, according to the American SIDS Institute, is that the deaths — about 1 in every 2,000 live births — remain unexplained, even after an autopsy. There are some preventative measures parents can take – have babies sleep on their backs, keep blankets and pillows out of the crib, etc. – but nothing is foolproof. And in those frantic moments after their granddaughter slipped away in their own home, Edward and Patti Cordero couldn’t comprehend it.
The police, too, wanted answers. They stationed an officer outside Tehya’s door, preventing anyone from entering. They separated Edward and Patti and, at their darkest moment, began questioning each individually. When was the baby last checked on? Who held her when?
“They treat you like a criminal,” Edward said.
Edward Cordero, though, had one thing to do before he could answer even a single question. He had to call his son.
“Making that phone call,” he said between sobs, “was the worst thing I ever had to do.”
The initial message to Chad was that he and Jamie had to come quickly, that something was wrong with Tehya. They were in the car instantly. At 1 a.m., the roads were wide open. Chad kept calling his father.
“I had to tell him the truth,” Edward Cordero said, so he did.
“I have no idea how I was able to drive,” Chad said.
When the Corderos arrived, the paramedics were already gone, the coroner there, distraught relatives littered about. Finally, authorities allowed the Corderos into Tehya’s room. There, they held their baby girl one last time.
“She looked peaceful,” Chad said. “She looked like she was sleeping. She looked like she had a smile on her face. Her eyes were halfway open, so it almost seemed like she was looking out at us.”
In the days that followed, the Corderos’ Huntington Beach home filled with people, maybe 50 a day. Chad and Jamie spent much of the time in their room, the door closed, crying. But they wanted — they needed — the support. When Edward called Chad one day to say he and Patti would give them some space, Chad responded, “No. We want people here.”
The trick then: Try to keep things as normal as possible, even if that was inherently impossible. Just three weeks after Tehya’s death, the Corderos wanted to have their regular Christmas, and their regular Christmas included Chad’s younger brother Matthew playing Santa for all the family’s kids. In his role, Matthew ticked off their names. He omitted one: Tehya.
“He didn’t know how he should handle it,” Edward Cordero said.
The realization hit everyone. Tehya wasn’t to be avoided. She was to be celebrated.
“I get upset with people that don’t talk about her because they think . . . I don’t know,” Jamie said. “I’m just happy when someone mentions her name, because she’s still our daughter.”
She is, too, the reason Chad Cordero returned to pitch. After Christmas, he called his agent and said he wanted to try again. The Blue Jays had been interested all along.
“I was just basically telling these guys,” said Toronto scouting director Dana Brown, who drafted Cordero when he held the same position with the Montreal Expos, “if there was anybody who would fight back, it would be him.”
The fight, though, takes work. Three days after Tehya died, Cordero got a tattoo of Tehya’s face on his left forearm. Now, he talks to her image before bullpen sessions, looks at it when he’s on the mound. Almost all the Corderos – Matthew, Edward, little sister Ashley — got tattoos as well. Jamie has Tehya’s footprint and nickname — “Tey Tey” — on the inside of her left wrist.
Still, said Jamie, “It doesn’t get easier,” and she badly needs distractions. The family passes the down time in spring training with hours of miniature golf. They bought a season pass to Busch Gardens, where being slung about on the roller coasters can nudge the mind somewhere else.
“You start questioning, ‘Why? Why? Why?’ ” Edward said. “It’ll be difficult to the day we die. We won’t ever get over it, but hopefully, we’ll be able to function.”
Functioning, now, includes baseball. Tuesday, Cordero is due to throw in a major league spring training game for the first time. Trite as it might sound, Tehya will join him.
“I’m just using her as motivation, trying to find strength,” he said, “because I know, now, she’ll always be with me, no matter what.”
She will be with the entire Cordero family. Even Riley, two months shy of her second birthday, hears about Tehya. “We have to remember: she lost a sister,” Jamie said. So when Chad and Jamie speak of her — which they do often — Riley turns her head to the sky and blows Tehya a kiss, her own way of doing what her parents want: Remembering precious little Tehya Irene Cordero, Sept. 12-Dec. 4, 2010.